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Magazine Article

The Customer As Quark: An Interview with David Van Nuys

Hi-Tech Marketing
October 1986

When it comes to marketing, David Van Nuys believes the high-tech customer is a quark.

        According to Van Nuys... the similarity between the high-tech customer and the always-moving, tough-to-locate, subatomic quark signals a sweeping change in marketing. "The customer today is a moving target," he says. "He's moving so fast that you can't afford to do the long, drawn out, quantitative research that traditional marketing is based on."

        This view of marketing is so radically new that it represents what Van Nuys says is a paradigm shift-- a profound change in the thought, perceptions and values that form a particular vision of reality. That paradigm shift in marketing, Van Nuys says, was caused by a similar shift in physics-- one that is changing our whole way of looking at the world.

        For the past 300 years, Western thought was dominated by a paradigm that is best described as "mechanistic." This mechanistic view was largely founded upon what Van Nuys calls the "old" physics-- theories based on the ideas of Isaac Newton, René Descartes and Francis Bacon.

        The mechanistic viewpoint held that the material world was a multitude of separate, measurable objects assembled into a huge machine. This machine operated by the principles of cause and effect: Event A causes Event B, which in turn causes Event C. Complex phenomena, even human behavior-- could be understood by reducing them to their basic building blocks, and by looking for the mechanisms through which these building blocks operated.

        Then came the paradigm shift. Fed by key insights introduced by Einstein in 1905, "new physics" discards the idea of certainty in the subatomic world, replacing it with probability. "At the subatomic level," Van Nuysexplains, "matter does not exist with certainty at definite places, but rather shows a 'tendency to exist.'"

        The new physics has proved that subatomic "things"-- once considered solid, incremental objects-- do not exist independently, Van Nuys says. They exist only as interconnections between "things." "In quantum theory, I am told, you never end up with 'things,'" he says. "You always deal with interconnections. So we're forced to shift from looking at the world in terms of objects, to looking at it in terms of relationships."

        And while the old physics held that stationary objects were indeed static, in the microscopic world of the new physics, everything is in motion, Van Nuys says.

        This paradigm shift in physics, he says, has led to a parallel shift in high-tech marketing-- a shift necessitated by the rapidity with which the high-tech market changes. Consider the case of the telephone.

        "Traditionally, by the time the telephone got to market research, it would be an accomplished fact," Van Nuys says. "It would already have been designed and built, its features hard-wired in, the decisions already made as to how it would be marketed. It would then come to market research for some kind of final checkout. But by the time market researchers came out with their study of the phone, chances are the market had moved and someone else had brought out a better product."

        Enter the "new" marketing. Today's high-tech market, Van Nuys says, demands a "dynamic dialogue" between the customers and the makers of high-tech products-- even the simple telephone. "We're proposing that people bring market research into the process at the very beginning, when they first get the concept of having that phone," he says. "They should talk to customers during design and every other step of the way, continuously recycling customer input."

        The paradigm shift in marketing is also steering market research away from a stress on quantifying. Explains Van Nuys, "In physics, we've found that the quantifiable, objective approach-- the nice, neat cause-and-effect package-- doesn't hold. The way particles behave is related to how we observe them; the subjective factor has much more sway. We're finding the same thing in market research: that emotional and subjective aspects are important. IBMfor example, swept the personal computer market not because of objective product superiority, but because they could make people feel secure.

        Market research firms thus can no longer rely on "old-time" methods as testing consumers' responses to different ads by varying only one element of those ads at a time-- changing just a headline, for instance, Van Nuys says. "Instead, we come up with wholly different ads, or ask for consumers' responses to whole ideas," he says. "Our approach is to get to people at an emotional level, to elicit deep, emotional, gut responses. We try to surprise them, to shock them, to confront them."

        How receptive has the high-tech community been to marketing research based on this paradigm shift?"

        "Most people still try to use us in the traditional way-- just before they go out to market," Van Nuys says. "But business is moving in that direction. People are bringing us in earlier."

        And while "bringing us in earlier" means, of course, a higher market research bill, Van Nuys says the results of that research are worth it. "It may seem more costly," he says, "but it's more expensive to get the product out and have it all wrong-- and all set in concrete."

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